Get Thee To a Nunnery

On the descent into madness

The contest for the greatest play in the English language comes down to one of two Shakespeare plays: Hamlet and Macbeth. Both of these plays delve deeply into the psyche of ordinary men and women who enter the realm of madness. The plays themselves and the characters therein resonate deeply, crossing boundaries temporal and cultural. In our contemporary culture, the descent into madness is the theme of two of the most popular record albums ever recorded, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. The former used to rival Michael Jackson’s Thriller for worldwide sales, and is still the second most selling record of all time. I’m sure that as soon as either David Gilmore or Roger Waters dies (Rick Wright, RIP) many new fans will restore the rivalry at the top of the all-time charts

Shakespeare draws a picture for us: Hamlet, young Hamlet, possessed by the ghost of his father to avenge his death, has been veritably banished by his uncle to England, whereupon he will be murdered, as everybody knows. By some twist of fate and the adventuring spirit of young Hamlet, he escapes, making his way back to Elsinore. Upon his arrival at the outskirts, he stumbles across an open grave. Holding up the skull of Yorick, his father’s jester, and a favorite person from his childhood, he says, “I knew him.”

Linear perspective insists that all parallel lines converge upon the horizon. Well, here at the open grave, the horizon been brought dramatically forward, and Hamlet experiences the confrontation which is a response to his melodramatic soliloquy: what dreams may come after we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.

Hamlet 1948 réal : Laurence Olivier Laurence Olivier  Collection Christophel
Hamlet 1948: Laurence Olivier

Not for long, for the grave is not passive; it is active, yawning, galloping, devouring. In a brilliant interpretation of the subtlest kind, Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, when he hears the approaching funeral procession, tosses the skull of Yorick back into the grave, just in time for old Yorick to receive the recently deceased and politically important Ophelia.

All the powers of the earth are here converging, with love, politics, royalty, vengeance, and that always-pressing anxiety intersecting over a grave. War is ever on the horizon, hemming everyone within easy reach of the same.

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun

But it’s sinking

Racing around to come up behind you again

Banquo’s ghost won’t rest, either, charging up from the grave to confront, wordlessly, the ambitious Macbeth.

Here’s a curious aside: Richard Burton, an actor of some note, refused to play Macbeth because, as he says, he cannot be dominated by a woman in that way. The irony is captivating once you come to the understanding that he drove himself to drink over his treacherous divorce in order to win for himself the great prize, Elizabeth Taylor, who dominated him.

The descent into madness, and its appeal to popular and literary culture, is not limited to obsessive thoughts concerning the grave. “This is the end. There is an end to me. Life has no purpose, no meaning.” No, that’s maudlin stuff. Pap. Child’s play. The descent into madness is the lonely individual coping with the active, ongoing confrontation of the grave, that all our evil deeds and the evil deeds of many others manage to wriggle free from death’s strong bonds in an effort to possess us ahead of time.

Ordinary people have a fascination with the exploration of the descent of ordinary people into madness. A playwright or musician will set the scene in extraordinary circumstances, by my reckoning, to sell tickets on the entertainment value. The literary value, i.e., its meaningfulness to the paying ordinary public, is its deep-seated commonality, the themes which grasp a deep-seated anxiety, an anxiety which many people would declare possesses us all. Some of us, for various reasons, cope better with that anxiety than others.

The meaning of life, in other words, is a question of how to maintain meaningful behavior even while under possession of the grave.

Richard Burton’s Hamlet gestures toward Ophelia’s womb, saying, “Get thee to a nunnery.”


The Futility of Morality

Frankly, I’m tired of being called a bigot, but that doesn’t matter anymore.

There is now no logical leap required to get from “The state shall not compel me to violate my conscience, which holds fast to a moral tradition at least 3500 years in the making” to “You are a bigoted homophobe.” The two things have come together like the two halves of a beryllium sphere, and there’s no “but…” that is not immediately rejoined with “Spare us the lectures from your angry Middle Eastern storm god.” The most insidious, of course, is the subversion of that moral tradition with the sleight of phrase, “Love thy neighbor” = “Consenting adults,” and, moreover, if you don’t agree, that means you want to put blacks and negros on the back of the bus and make them enter restaurants through the back door.

Like I said, it doesn’t matter. There is no more room for conversation here. None. It’s over. The language has shifted dramatically from persuasive to compulsion. My friend Sam Wilson suggests that, instead of a #BoycottIndiana response to a law preventing the state to compel me to violate my conscience, businesses should employ rainbow stickers. Or whatever. It doesn’t matter.

Why doesn’t it matter? Well, somewhere along the way in Western Civilization (say 1950) it became clear that the cultural guardians of public morality actually were imposing it, and, I’d say, mercilessly imposing it. The pushback was forty years in the making, which means that a generation passed away and a new one came along which did not understand the pushback. So they pushed back, passing laws, which, as we know, are backed with the full authority and force of the government. Since the nineties, another generation has gone and come, with the resulting push back. Now we shall wrest the authority and force of the government from the hands of the enemy in order to fetch a bigger hammer.

As for me, I have consigned myself to bigotry, and I will bow my head to the punishment which will be meted out against me until A) I get my mind right, or B) I die. The problem with choice A), of course, is that no one is actually making arguments anymore, just shouts and legal threats to comply. Thank God for B).

I happen to eschew militancy for submission. In other words, in general, I just want friends, so I’ll nod my head quietly and hope I don’t have to actually engage in violation of my conscience, like some unfortunate others. I also have the advantage of a fair amount of book-learning, which I can use to weasel my way through tricky obstacles. Alas, there are those of my moral persuasion who are far more militant than I am.

I wonder only what kind of conflagration it will be: bodily, symbolical, typological…

Probably all of the above, for it has always been thus. As a Christian, I rejoice in the theology of exile.